Answer the highlighted questions and use the reading attached to answer them
1)As a member of the court of the Duke of Mantua, Peter Paul Rubens studied the Italian Renaissance and Baroque before returning to Flanders. His first major commission in Antwerp was The Raising of the Cross. When reading about this enormous triptych, try and identify ways in which he was inspired by the Italian Renaissance, the Northern Renaissance, and the Italian Baroque movement.
Need to read this to answer number 1-
An enormous triptych
The Elevation of the Cross altarpiece is a masterpiece of Baroque painting by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. The work was originally installed on the high altar of the Church of St. Walburga in Antwerp (since destroyed), and is now located in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp.
This triptych (a painting—usually an altarpiece—comprised of two outer “wings” and a central panel) is impressive in its size, measuring 15 feet in height and 21 feet wide when open. The original frame, unfortunately lost, would have made the painting even more impressive in size! Due to its very size, Rubens actually painted it on-site behind a curtain. Four saints associated with the church of St. Walburga can be found on the exterior of the wings (visible when the altarpiece is closed): Saints Amandus and Walburga on the left and Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Eligius on the right.
Rubens was one of the most prolific and sought after painters of the Baroque period, generally (although not always) defined in painting and sculpture by the representation of action and emotion in ways meant to inspire the Catholic faithful (this triptych was painted less than a century after Martin Luther’s challenge to the authority of the Catholic Church).
In the central panel, we see the dramatic moment when the cross of Christ’s crucifixion is being raised to its upright position. Rubens created a strong diagonal emphasis by placing the base of the cross at the far lower right of the composition and the top of the cross in the upper left—making Christ’s body the focal point. This strong diagonal reinforces the notion that this is an event unfolding before the viewer, as the men struggle to lift the weight of their burden.
Figures raising the cross (detail), Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, from Saint Walburga, 1610, oil on wood, center panel: 15 feet 1-7/8 inches x 11 feet 1-1/2 inches (now in Antwerp Cathedral)
Adding to this dynamic tension is the visual sensation that the two men in the lower right are about to burst into the viewer’s space as they work to pull the cross upward (see image above). The viewer is caught in a moment of anxiety, waiting for the action to be complete.
In the left panel (below, left) are St. John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary, who, standing in the shadow of the rocky outcrop above them, look to their left at what unfolds before their eyes. Shown in quiet resignation and grief over the fate of Christ, the group of women below is a stark contrast of overwrought emotion. Here too Rubens uses a diagonal along the line of the women from the lower right to the mid-left, setting John and Mary apart, allowing the viewer to focus on their reaction.
Side panels, Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, from Saint Walburga, 1610, oil on wood, center panel: 15 feet 1-7/8 inches x 11 feet 1-1/2 inches (now in Antwerp Cathedral)
The right panel (above, right) continues the narrative event as Roman soldiers prepare the two thieves for their fate as they will be crucified alongside Christ. One thief—already being nailed to the cross on the ground—is foreshortened back into space, while the other—just behind him with his hands bound—is being forcefully led away by his hair. The diagonal Rubens created here runs the opposite direction as that in the left panel, moving from the lower left to the upper right along the line created by the leg and neck of the gray horse. These opposing diagonals further create tension across the composition, heightening the viewer’s sense of drama and chaotic action.
A unified narrative and biblical accuracy
In addition to the powerful figural composition, the three panels are visually unified through the landscape and sky. The left and central panels share a rocky outcropping covered with oak trees and vines (both of which have Christological significance). Notice that St. John, the Virgin Mary and the Roman soldiers just to the left of the cross are standing on the same ground-line.
Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, from Saint Walburga, 1610, oil on wood, center panel: 15 feet 1-7/8 inches x 11 feet 1-1/2 inches (now in Antwerp Cathedral)
The unification of the central and right panels is accomplished through the sky, which begins to darken in the central panel, moving to the impending eclipse of the sun on the right, an event recounted in the Gospel of Matthew (27:45): “From noon on, darkness came over the whole land….” This attention to biblical accuracy is also seen in the text on the scroll at the top of the cross, which reads: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” written in Greek, Latin, and Aramaic, as told in the Gospel of John (19:19-21). In both cases, Rubens was adhering to one of the primary mandates of the Council of Trent (1545-63), which called for historical accuracy in the representation of sacred events (at the Council of Trent, church authorities essentially decided theological questions raised by Martin Luther and the Protestants, the period following the Council is known as the Counter-Reformation—the Catholic Church’s response to Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation).
Rubens and a reflection of Italy
Caravaggio, Crucifixion of St. Peter, oil on canvas, 1601 (Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome)
The Elevation of the Cross altarpiece was the first commission Rubens received after returning to Antwerp from his Italian sojourn from 1600 to 1608/9 where he worked in the cities of Mantua, Genoa, and Rome.
Given his extended time in Italy, it is not surprising that we see a number of Italian influences in this work. The richness of the coloration (notice the blues and reds throughout the composition) and Rubens’ painterly technique recalls that of the Venetian master Titian, while the dramatic contrasts of light and dark bring to mind Caravaggio’s tenebrism (darkness) in his Roman compositions, such as the Crucifixion of St. Peter (left). And indeed, we can clearly see Rubens’ interest in his Italian counterpart in the sense of physical exertion, the use of foreshortening—where figures push past the boundaries of the picture plane into the space of the viewer, and in the use of the diagonal.
In terms of the muscularity and physicality of Ruben’s male figures, a clear connection can be drawn to Michelangelo’s nude males (the ignudi) on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In addition to looking at the works of past and contemporary masters, we know Rubens was also interested in the study of classical antiquity (ancient Greece and Rome). In fact, the figure of Christ seems to have been based on one of the most famous works of antiquity, the Laocoön, which Rubens made drawings of during his time in Rome.
Christ (detail), Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, from Saint Walburga, 1610, oil on wood, center panel: 15 feet 1-7/8 inches x 11 feet 1-1/2 inches (now in Antwerp Cathedral)
Elevation: altarpiece and high altar
When the Elevation of the Cross altarpiece was placed on the high altar, there was a specific connection being forged between the subject of the painting and the function of the altar. The act of raising an object up is known in Latin as elevatio. During the Mass performed by the priest at the high altar, there is a moment when the Eucharistic wafer (miraculously transformed into the body of Christ) is elevated. Thus, when the congregation faced the high altar, they not only saw the elevatio of Christ’s cross but the elevation of the wafer, and thus the altarpiece and the ritual of the mass performed in front of it visually reinforced the message of Christ’s sacrifice on behalf of mankind.
Rubens, The Presentation of the Portrait of Marie de’ Medici
Peter Paul Rubens, The Presentation of the Portrait of Marie de’ Medici, c. 1622-1625, oil on canvas, 394 x 295 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris)
Peter Paul Rubens, The Presentation of the Portrait of Marie de’ Medici, c. 1622-1625, oil on canvas, 394 x 295 cm (Musée du Louvre)
Cupid’s arrow hits its mark
A young woman in a bejeweled dress with a stiff lace collar gazes confidently out of a simply-framed, bust-length portrait placed at the very center of a large canvas. Her name is Marie de’ Medici, daughter of the Grandduke of Tuscany.
The ancient gods of marriage and love—Hymen and Amor (Cupid), to the left and right, respectively—hover in midair as they present this portrait to Henry IV, the king of France. Hymen holds in his left hand a flaming torch, symbolizing the ardor of love, while Cupid extols the virtues of the Medici princess. Cupid’s arrow has hit its mark; the king is smitten. He gazes up in gratitude, his left hand extended as he expresses his delight in his bride-to-be.
King smitten with the portrait of his bride-to-be (detail), Peter Paul Rubens, The Presentation of the Portrait of Marie de’ Medici, c. 1622-1625, oil on canvas, 394 x 295 cm (Musée du Louvre)
From the heavens above, Jupiter and Juno, the king and queen of the Olympian gods, look down with approval, their own hands touching in a tender gesture of marital union. Jupiter’s fierce eagle, seen in the top left corner, looks away from the couple and clenches its lightening bolts in its talons. In contrast, Juno’s tamed peacock looks at the divine couple, while his mate cranes her neck to look at the portrait. A pink silk ribbon binds them together. The peahen perches on Juno’s chariot, directly above a golden relief of Cupid who balances a yoke-shaped garland (a symbol of marriage) on his shoulders as he playfully dances on the wings of a proud eagle. The message is clear: even the king of the gods can be subdued by love. Following Jupiter’s lead, Henry must also turn his attention to marriage.
Jupiter and Juno (detail), Peter Paul Rubens, The Presentation of the Portrait of Marie de’ Medici, c. 1622-1625, oil on canvas, 394 x 295 cm (Musée du Louvre)
However, this match is about politics as well as love. Behind Henry stands the personification of France, wearing a blue silk garment embroidered with gold fleur-de-lys (the coat of arms of the French monarchy) and an elaborate plumed helmet encircled by a gold crown. She gently touches Henry’s shoulder and whispers in his ear, assuring him that a match with the Medici princess is indeed good for the kingdom. France urges Henry to turn away from the field of battle, the aftermath of which is visible in the burning town in the background, and attend to hearth and home, for domestic matters are no less important to the survival of the monarchy than military exploits. Henry obliges; his helmet and shield—now the playthings of two tender cherubs—lie at his feet.
View of the Marie de Medici cycle by Peter Paul Rubens in the Louvre (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-SA 2.0)
This canvas is the sixth in a series of twenty-four paintings on the life of Marie de’ Medici commissioned by the queen herself from Peter Paul Rubens in 1622 to adorn one of the two galleries in the Luxembourg Palace, her newly-built home in Paris. In both scale and subject matter, this cycle is unprecedented. Not only is it unique in its dedication to the major life events of a queen, but it also includes events that were both quite recent and quite humiliating. After Henry was assassinated in 1610, Marie—acting as regent for their young son, Louis XIII—ruled the kingdom of France for seven years. The position suited her; but many French nobles begrudged her power. Divisions in the court, including tensions with her own son, led to Marie’s exile from the Paris in 1617. The commission of the biographical cycle marked her reconciliation with Louis and her return to the capital city in 1620. It vindicated her reign as the queen of France.
Presentation of the Portrait of Marie de’ Medici (at left), Marie de Medici cycle in the Louvre
The cycle idealizes and allegorizes Marie’s life in light of the peace and prosperity she brought to the kingdom, not through military victories but through wisdom, devotion to her husband and her adopted country, and strategic marriage alliances—her own as well as the ones she brokered for her children. This, at least, is the message she wished to convey and she worked closely with her advisors and Rubens to ensure her story was told as she saw fit.
The Presentation of the Portrait forms part of this agenda; it is an idealized portrayal of the conclusion in April of 1600 of marriage negotiations that were two years in the making. The painting presents Henry’s bethrothal to Marie de Medici as a union ordained by the gods, counseled by France, and inspired by Marie’s beauty and virtues. In reality, the merits of the union were extolled not by a soft-haired, fleshy Cupid but by the alliance’s French and Italian proponents, one of whom reported that the portrait presented by the Florentine negotiators “pleased His Majesty exceedingly.” Henry, for his part, was distracted from the negotiations by his new mistress, whom he had promised to marry. Nevertheless, he recognized the political and financial necessity of the Medici marriage. When his advisor announced the finalization of the marriage contract, Henry exclaimed: “By God, let it be; there is nothing to be done about it, because for the good of my kingdom and my peoples, you say that I must be married, so I simply must be.”
Cupid and King Henry discussing the portrait of Marie de Medici (detail), Peter Paul Rubens, The Presentation of the Portrait of Marie de’ Medici, c. 1622-1625, oil on canvas, 394 x 295 cm (Musée du Louvre)
For Henry, a Protestant who had converted to Catholicism upon ascending to the throne in 1593, a Catholic wife would assuage any concerns about his loyalty to the Catholic Church in France. Additionally, Marie’s hefty dowry eased Henry’s large debt to the Medici, major financial backers of his military activities. And, perhaps most importantly, Henry was nearing the age of 50 and had yet to father an heir, putting France’s future stability in danger. A fruitful union with Marie was key to this stability. In this matter, the 27-year old Marie did not disappoint, giving birth to a son one year after the wedding, and five additional children, four of whom survived to adulthood. Rubens asserts Marie’s successful role as wife and mother by establishing a dominant vertical axis through the center of the composition from Juno, with her exposed, full breasts, through Marie’s portrait to the chubby cherub directly below. Of all of the figures in the painting, Marie and the cherub are the only ones who look out at the viewer, pointedly reaffirming the centrality of Marie de’ Medici and of her royal progeny to the future of France.
The theme of peace, which runs throughout the cycle, was indeed furthered not only in France but in Europe by the marriage alliances brokered by Marie for her children: Louis XIII married a daughter of the Spanish king, her daughter Elisabeth married the heir to the Spanish throne (the future King Philip IV), and her daughter Henrietta married Charles I of England.
Luxembourg Palace (garden façade), Paris (France)
The pictorial cycle was installed in the Luxembourg Palace by 1625, in time for the Henrietta’s wedding festivities, thus enabling Marie to showcase her accomplishments to her many guests. Marie’s truce with her son Louis however was short lived and she died in exile in 1631. Despite the challenges of her life as she struggled to regain the power and influence she once had, Marie de’ Medici lived to hear herself proclaimed mother of three sovereigns, certainly an impressive legacy for the orphaned daughter of the Grandduke of Tuscany.
Rubens, The Consequences of War
Rubens, explaining his painting, The Consequences of War (from a letter to Justus Sustermans, translated by Kristin Lohse Belin, in Rubens, Phaidon, 1998):
The principal figure is Mars, who has left open the temple of Janus (which in time of peace, according to Roman custom, remained closed) and rushes forth with shield and blood-stained sword, threatening the people with great disaster. He pays little heed to Venus, his mistress, who, accompanied by Amors and Cupids, strives with caresses and emraces to hold him. From the other side, Mars is dragged forward by the Fury Alekto, with a torch in her hand. Near by are monsters personifying Pestilence and Famine, those inseparable partners of War. On the ground, turning her back, lies a woman with a broken lute, representing Harmony, which is incompatible with the discord of War. There is also a mother with her child in her arms, indicating that fecundity, procreation and charity are thwarted by War, which corrupts and destroys everything. In addition, one sees an architect thrown on his back, with his instruments in his hand, to show that which in time of peace is constructed for the use and ornamentation of the City, is hurled to the ground by the force of arms and falls to ruin. I believe, if I remember rightly, that you will find on the ground, under the feet of Mars, a book and a drawing on paper, to imply that he treads underfoot all the arts and letters. There ought also to be a bundle of darts or arrows, with the band which held them together undone; these when bound form the symbol of Concord. Beside them is the caduceus and an olive branch, attribute of Peace; these are also cast aside. That grief-stricken woman clothed in black, with torn veil, robbed of all her jewels and other ornaments, is the unfortunate Europe who, for so many years now, has suffered plunder, outrage, and misery, which are so injurious to everyone, that it is unnecessary to go into detail. Europe’s attribute is the globe, borne by a small angel or genius, and surmounted by the cross, to symbolize the Christian world.
While Frans Hals’ Officers of the Haarlem Militia Company of St. Adrian appears to be a casual grouping of figures, it is a composition made up of dynamic, diagonal lines. Note 3 tactics that Hals uses to create a dramatic and lively image.
Frans Hals, The Woman Regents, c. 1664, oil on canvas, 170.5 x 249.5 cm (Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem)
“[He] excels almost everyone with the superb and uncommon manner of painting which is uniquely his …. [His portraits] are colored in such a way that they seem to live and breathe.”—Theodor Schrevelius (1572-1649)
Frans Hals, The Rommel-Pot Player, c. 1618-22, oil on canvas, 106 x 80.3 cm (Kimbell Art Museum)
Haarlem was a prominent city in the seventeenth-century Netherlands and a leading center for the Golden Age of Dutch art. Still life, landscape, and genre painting were wildly popular, but there was also a surge in portrait commissions due to the newfound wealth of the many merchants who flocked to this area. As one of the foremost painters of this period, Frans Hals received many portrait commissions—especially from the Haarlem elite who sought to preserve their likeness and demonstrate their status. Hals’s painterly approach to art set him apart from his contemporaries; there is a looseness in his brushwork and liveliness in his sitters that is unique.
For the open market (in other words, not commissioned works), Hals created portraits of the common members of society including children, drunkards, and musicians—most are depicted smiling or laughing (far removed from the more reserved representations of the elite).
Depicting these marginal figures allowed Hals the freedom to experiment with facial expressions while still maintaining each figure’s individuality (above and below left). Hals received many commissions from wealthy individuals, but also made a name for himself with his group portraits. Some of these prestigious commissions were for guilds (associations of craftsmen or merchants) or civic guards, while others, such as The Women Regents (top of page) were for charitable groups.
Frans Hals, A Militiaman Holding a Berkemeyer (The Merry Drinker), c. 1628-30, oil of canvas, 81× 66.5 cm (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
Group portraits such as these were typically displayed in a public space where the sitters’ status and good deeds could be recognized. Founded in 1609, the Old Men’s Almshouse (Oude Mannenhuis) was governed by a board of regents and provided shelter and care for elderly single men. This portrait, along with its companion painting depicting the male regents (below), was likely made in 1664, when Hals was 81 or 82 years old. In The Women Regents five women are clustered around a table in the immediate foreground. The painting is somber—dominated by blacks and grays that are punctuated by the white collars of the women’s clothes. Depicted in traditional Calvinist clothing, the women are not only representing their caretaking profession, but also the dominant religion of the Dutch Republic.
The women are quiet and austere. Perhaps they are weary from their responsibility in caring for the elderly poor, or perhaps they are simply serious about their task of governing the almshouse. Regardless, there is a dignity in the figures and a clear intention to individualize them, both through their likenesses and different poses.
Frans Hals, Regents of the Old Men’s Alms House, c. 1664, oil on canvas, 172.3 x 256 cm (Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem)
The background is simple; a landscape painting hangs on the wall behind the women and a large swath of drapery sweeps across the upper left corner. Although it is a stark contrast from Hals’s jovial militia banquet group portraits (below), there is still a sense of a captured moment in time. The women are posed and arranged so that the viewer has a full view of each of them. A few of them are in mid-pose—one even appears to have just entered the scene from the right. Only three stare out at the viewer. Textured brushwork combined with the repetitive triangular shapes of the women’s bodies and their collars provide a sense of movement. While this painting is a stark contrast from his earlier jovial portraits of individuals, The Women Regents still embodies Hals’ penchant for expressive and textured brushwork. This technique is especially evident in the cuffs of the central standing figure where the brushstrokes simultaneously retain their painterly quality and give the illusion of texture. The cuffs are rendered with a series of quick lines encircling the woman’s wrists, yet from afar the paint strokes blend together, alluding to the qualities of a stiff, pleated fabric. Overall, the scene is still; however, through his virtuosity in brushwork, Hals has bestowed it with a sense of life, as if this painting represents these women in a specific moment in time.
Frans Hals, Meeting of the Officers and Sergeants of the Civic Cavalry Guard, 1633, oil on canvas, 207 x 337 cm (Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem)
There is scant information about Hals’s early life and upbringing. He was born in Antwerp, but moved to Haarlem as a child where he spent the entirety of this life. The first significant recorded moment of his artistic career is when he joined the painters’ guild of St. Luke in Haarlem in 1610, however there is little reliable information regarding his artistic training. Unfortunately he suffered financial obstacles throughout his life and was forced to sell many of his paintings and personal goods in order to repay debts and care for his many children. Although Hals died in relative poverty, his influence was significant. Judith Leyster employed Hal’s loose handling of paint and sense of the moment in her own portraits, and centuries later the Impressionists admired his brushwork.
2)Perhaps the most famous Dutch artist of this era is Rembrandt. Select one of his works the below section and note at least 3 ways that his work reminds you of Caravaggio’s quintessentially Baroque style. Then, list at least two ways that his work is influenced by key social/political aspects of the Dutch Republic.
Read this to answer 2- A prolific career
It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn within the history of Western art. Indeed, Rembrandt is considered one of the foremost artists of the Dutch Baroque period, and even if he had never picked up a paintbrush, he would have been famous both in his day and ours as a printmaker of particular brilliance and as a prolific teacher. In a career that lasted nearly forty years, Rembrandt completed approximately 400 paintings, more than 1,000 drawings, and nearly 300 engravings. Although he spent his entire life north of the alps, had he been Italian and lived a century or so earlier, he likely would have joined his Italian brethren—Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael, as a member of the famed cartoon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Patrons: A wealthy, Protestant, and expanding middle class
But as time and place would have it, Rembrandt was neither Italian nor a part of the Renaissance. Instead, Rembrandt was born in Leiden in 1606. This place and time—Holland during the height of the expansion of the wealthy mercantile class during the middle half of the seventeenth century—served Rembrandt well through his long career. The Catholic Church often commissioned Italian artists at this time to undertake large-scale projects to promote religious ideology in support of the Counter-Reformation. Without the Catholic Church in Holland to commission art, Rembrandt and his fellow Dutch artists were lavishly supported by a wealthy, Protestant, and expanding middle class. This group of patrons enthusiastically commissioned works of art with their increasing discretionary income.
New subjects (including group portraits)
Many different types of art became popular during the Dutch Baroque period. Genre paintings—small paintings of everyday life—were exceptionally popular with a middle-class clientele, as were still lifes, landscapes, and prints. The majority of these kinds of art were both affordable and small enough to be easily displayed within an average home. Larger and more compositionally complicated, group portraiture also became popular in Holland during the seventeenth century. This was a mode of painting that was often placed in a public space so that the image could promote a particular organization.
Jacob van Ruisdael, View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds, c. 1670–75, oil on canvas, 55.5 x 62.0 cm (Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands)
Relocating to Amsterdam
Although several of Rembrandt’s most well-known paintings are group portraits—The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp among others—his early education in Leiden, first at a Latin school and then later at the university, suggest that he was destined for a vocation other than art. However, by the time he was sixteen he decided he wanted to be a painter and a draughtsman. After finding quick success in Leiden during the 1620s, Rembrandt relocated to Amsterdam in 1631, a wise professional decision, as this was then one of the wealthiest and largest cities in Europe.
Thomas de Keyser, Syndics of the Amsterdam Golsmiths Guild, 1627, oil on canvas, 127.2 x 152.4 cm (Toledo Museum of Art)
A group portrait for the Amsterdam Surgeon’s Guild
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, 1632, oil on canvas, 169.5 x 216.5 cm (Mauritshuis, The Hague)
Just a year after his arrival, Rembrandt was offered the commission to complete a group portrait of the Amsterdam Surgeon’s Guild, an image that in time has come to be known rather simply as The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp. It is remarkable that Rembrandt received this commission as a newcomer to Amsterdam when there were other native-born artists available. Thomas de Keyser (above) and Nicolaes Pickenoy (below), for example, were older and more experienced in the realm of group portraiture. Whereas another artist may have simply recreated a previous group image—inserting new heads in place of old ones—Rembrandt created something new, and in doing so, completed one of the most recognizable images in the history of painting.
Dr. Nicolaes Tulp
Dr. Nicolaes Tulp was appointed praelector (like a professor or lecturer) of the Amsterdam Anatomy Guild in 1628. One of the responsibilities of this position was to deliver a yearly public lecture on some aspect of human anatomy. The lecture in 1632 occurred on 16 January, and this is the scene that Rembrandt depicts in paint in The Anatomy of Lesson of Dr. Tulp.
Dr. Tulp displaying the flexors in a cadaver’s arm (detail), Rembrandt van Rijn, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, 1632, oil on canvas, 169.5 x 216.5 cm (Mauritshuis, The Hague)
This is a more complicated composition than it at first appears. Understandably, the focal point of the image is Dr. Tulp, the doctor who is shown displaying the flexors of the cadaver’s left arm. Rembrandt notes the doctor’s significance by showing him as the only person who wears a hat. Seven colleagues surround Dr. Tulp, and they look in a variety of directions—some gaze at the cadaver, some stare at the lecturer, and some peek directly at the viewer. Each face displays a facial expression that is deeply personal and psychological. The cadaver—a recently executed thief named Adriaen Adriaenszoon—lies nearly parallel to the picture plane. Viewing the illuminated body from his head to his feet brings into focus a book—likely Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica (Fabric of the Human Body, 1543)—propped up in the lower right corner. In all, Rembrandt shows nine distinct figures, but does so as if they are a unified group.
Thomas de Keyser or Nicolaes Eliaszoon Pickenoy, The Osteology Lesson of Dr. Sebastiaen Egbertsz, 1619, oil on canvas, 135 x 186 cm (Amsterdam Historical Museum)
Comparing The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp to a somewhat similar example, The Osteology Lesson of Dr. Sebastiaen Egbertszoon, shows just how different and novel Rembrandt’s composition was at the time. The Sebastiaen Erbertszoon painting is a series of six portraits that surround a single human skeleton; but neither the heads nor the bodies seem to interact with one another in a real or coherent way. In contrast, the figures in Rembrandt’s Tulp seem to truly be a group, one collection of nine rather than nine individuals.
If the composition is different from what Rembrandt might have seen in Amsterdam, the choice of subject is different than what would have been expected in the parts of Europe that were Catholic. The Catholic tenet of resurrection necessitated that dead bodies be interred in a state of wholeness, and this fact explains why Leonardo was forced to dissect human bodies in secret. In Protestant Holland but 113 years after Leonardo’s death, however, human dissections were not only common practice, they were often public spectacles, complete with food and wine, music and conversation.
View of Rembrandt van Rijn, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp hanging in the Mauritshuis in The Hague (Netherlands)
If Rembrandt was able to create a truly group portrait—one of a single group rather than a collection of individuals—it is important to note that the artist took some understandable artistic license with some parts of the composition. As any anatomy and physiology student today can attest, a dissection of the human body almost always commences with an exploration of the chest and abdominal areas, parts of the human body most likely to decompose first, and only later does the procedure move onwards to the limbs. Moreover, it would have been unlikely that a doctor of Tulp’s importance would have actually dissected the body; instead, he would have lectured while the menial task of exposing the inner workings of the body would have been left to others. But in paint, a format without sound, Rembrandt put Tulp in charge not only in costume, but also in action.
Rembrandt’s signature prominently displayed (detail), Rembrandt van Rijn, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, 1632, oil on canvas, 169.5 x 216.5 cm (Mauritshuis, The Hague)
As the prominent signature in the upper part of the painting indicates, Rembrandt was justifiably proud of this large painting.
Whereas he had previously signed his works with his monogram RHL (Rembrandt Harmenszoon of Leiden), The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp contains Rembrant. f[ecit] 1632. This painting and the Latin announcement that “Rembrandt made it” marks the beginning of the painter’s mature career.
Thomas Eakins, Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875, oil on canvas, 244 x 198.2 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Daring, compositionally innovative, and deeply psychological, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp launched Rembrandt to fame and wealth and influenced generations of artists to come. Indeed, without Tulp, it seems impossible for Thomas Eakins to have painted The Gross Clinic, 1876 almost two and a half centuries later.
Judith Leyster, The Proposition
Judith Leyster, Man Offering Money to a Woman (The Proposition), 1631, oil on panel, 11-3/8 × 9-1/2 inches (Mauritshuis, The Hague)
A soberly dressed woman sits in a darkened room, working diligently on her sewing. The only light comes from a lamp on the table, filling the room with deep, ominous shadow. An older man in a fur hat touches her shoulder with one hand and with the other presents a fistful of coins. The sparsely lit and furnished room and the man’s leering countenance generate a sense of unease; the suspended moment leaves the viewer uncomfortable with what has happened—or what is about to transpire. But who are these people? What will the woman choose: to do her work and ignore the man, or to put down her sewing to take the money? Virtue or vice?
Judith Leyster’s painting, called Man Offering Money to a Woman by the Mauritshuis Museum but often referred to as The Proposition, is an enigmatic painting with an ambiguous subject. Painted by one of the few well-known female artists working in the Dutch Republic, its subject matter is unusual in Dutch art, though it has strong ties to several visual and symbolic traditions. Its diminutive size—a mere 30.8 by 24.2 centimeters—invites the viewer to examine it carefully and intimately.
Detail, Judith Leyster, Man Offering Money to a Woman (The Proposition), 1631, oil on panel, 11-3/8 × 9-1/2 inches (Mauritshuis, The Hague)
Leyster, Haarlem, and Caravaggio
Judith Leyster lived and worked primarily in the Dutch city of Haarlem, one of the centers of artistic innovation in the first half of the seventeenth century. The city had benefitted from an influx of artists and artisans who fled Antwerp in the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium) during the 80 Years War. Leyster was a member of the Guild of St. Luke (the guild for painters and several other trades), which was unusual for a woman. Like many of her colleagues including Frans Hals, Dirck Hals, and Pieter Codde, she primarily painted scenes of everyday people doing everyday things (otherwise known as genre scenes). Her work is distinctive for the flat background that gives little sense of an illusionistic interior space. Some scholars have attributed this to her possible contact with the “Utrecht School”—artists in the Dutch city of Utrecht who were influenced by Caravaggio whose early genre scenes such as The Cardsharps (below) display similarly flat backgrounds with figures close to the viewer. The sharp contrasts of light and dark on the woman’s blouse and face are also reminiscent of Caravaggio. There are just two visible light sources, the lamp on the table and the glowing foot warmer under the woman’s feet. The flame in the lamp is a form of illumination often seen in Caravaggio’s northern followers (and not in Caravaggio’s own work).
Caravaggio, The Cardsharps, c. 1595, oil on canvas, 37 1/16 x 51 9/16 inches / 94.2 x 130.9 cm (Kimbell Art Museum)
On the surface, the painting shows an awkward interaction between a man and a woman. Dutch art often seems to reflect everyday life. Yet there are reasons to interpret these images symbolically, and not just as a reflection of life as it was lived. Some scholars (including Wayne Franits and Simon Schama), have interpreted the immense volume of imagery of women as indicative of a general anxiety about women’s education and what it meant to be a good Calvinist housewife. Since religious art was not being produced for the church in this Protestant country, morality had to be instilled in other ways. Secular genre scenes are often perceived as having a role to play in the moral education of the populace, either in presenting an image of ideal behavior or the consequences of bad behavior. Scenes of pious, moral women on the one hand and brothel scenes with lascivious women on the other may have flourished for just these reasons.
Hands (detail), Judith Leyster, Man Offering Money to a Woman (The Proposition), 1631, oil on panel, 11-3/8 × 9-1/2 inches (Mauritshuis, The Hague)
One commonly accepted interpretation of this painting—and the one from which the painting takes its most common nickname—was proposed by a leading scholar who sees the painting as representing a sexual proposition—one which the woman is staunchly ignoring. This is a novel take on a traditional subject—brothel scenes where men interact with prostitutes or men and women drink and make merry in mixed company were among the most common subjects for genre paintings of the early seventeenth century. This type of scene has a long history in northern art (by artists such as Quentin Metsys, Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Durer, and others) and the actions of the participants was presented as unwise, unrestrained, and sinful, and women are usually presented as seductresses and thieves. These paintings therefore are models of how not to behave. By contrast, Leyster’s composition draws on another type of imagery that showed women hard at work—the very model of virtue.
A common component of visual culture in the seventeenth century was a type of book called an emblem book. On one page, the book might contain an image, a motto, and a poem, all explaining one moral lesson the reader was expected to learn. Books of this sort proliferated and some scholars have noted that there were more copies of emblem books circulating in seventeenth century Holland than bibles. Many scholars have tried to use this shared visual language to “decode” the components of genre paintings, with mixed success. Emblem literature was often targeted at specific audiences: for example, Jacob Cats, Houwelijk (Marriage) outlined all the proper stages of life for a woman. In one emblem, he presents needlework as one of the skills most valued and emblematic of domestic virtue.
Foot warmer (detail), Judith Leyster, Man Offering Money to a Woman (The Proposition), 1631, oil on panel, 11-3/8 × 9-1/2 inches (Mauritshuis, The Hague)
In Leyster’s painting, the woman becomes an icon of domesticity, working diligently in the cold, unlit room. Even the foot warmer on which the woman rests her feet to combat the cold has been connected to emblem books—as a symbol of the woman’s refusal of the man. One emblem book frames the foot warmer as a woman’s best friend since a man would have to be truly enticing to get a woman to step away from her foot warmer on a cold night. The woman’s firmly planted foot does not indicate a tendency towards a sexual liaison. Leyster’s composition has been seen as an important fore-runner of later genre painters such as Gerard Ter Borch, and, most famously, Johannes Vermeer. In Leyster’s painting, the viewer is left wondering to which tradition the woman belongs. Like much of Dutch art of the Golden Age (the 17th century), this painting is about choices: the choices of the subjects and by extension, the choices of the viewer. The woman is in a suspended state, a moment of decision. Will she virtuously continue her work, or arise, take the money, and go with the man? Will she choose virtue or vice?
 Frima Fox Hofrichter, Judith Leyster: A Woman Painter in Holland’s Golden Age (Davaco Publishers, 1989)
Johannes Vermeer is one of the great Dutch masters, though only about 35 paintings by him are known. Born in Delft in 1632, he may have been a pupil of local history painter Leonaert Bramer. Vermeer’s earliest works of the 1650s include religious and mythological subjects as well as genre scenes. They are influenced by Caravaggio’s followers in Utrecht, such as Hendrik ter Brugghen. Vermeer may have gained an interest in optical phenomena and the effects of the Camera Obscura from Carel Fabritius, who was active in Delft between 1650 and 1654. Vermeer was a Catholic and married in 1653, the year he became a master in the Delft painters’ guild. He produced relatively few paintings and may have worked on each one over an extended period of time. Vermeer’s work inspired even international collectors to visit his studio. Nonetheless, by 1672 he was in financial trouble; he died insolvent in 1675, leaving his wife and many children destitute. His mature domestic genre pieces have a characteristic pearly light. The eye is drawn into the picture by the careful placing of objects and a clearly defined architectural space. Figures pursue tranquil occupations, and the symbolic meaning of the scene is sometimes revealed through a painting within the painting.
3)After watching the video on Johannes Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance, do you think this work of art is a religious painting? In what ways does this work reflect the culture in which it was made?
Watch the video below to answer number 3